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Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1991

KU EDITION

August 17, 1991

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Take a look at Paul Coker Jr.'s office studio and it all makes sense.

It's a scene Coker himself might have drawn for the pages of MAD magazine a cartoonist struggling to work in a tiny space amidst a waist-high conglomeration of years of accumulated drawings, books, scripts, mail and eraser shavings.

Coker's 62-year-old eyes twinkle when visitors get a look at his workspace.

"You may wonder where I work in all this mess. . . . What I need is a flamethrower," this illustrious Jayhawk says, a grin forming on his face.

If you've ever picked up a MAD magazine in the last 30 or so years, you'll have seen a similar smile on some of Coker's madcap characters. Or on a Hallmark greeting card.

GO BACK a few decades and you'll find his drawings of campus life on the pages of the KU yearbook.

For the past 18 years or so, all of Coker's creations, including women with funny hairdos and men with noses the size of watermelons, have been sketched in the cramped bedroom in his home just east of KU's main campus.

A Lawrence native, Coker got his start in cartooning early, creating a drawing of the Lawrence High School mascot, Chesty Lion, that's still used. That was back in the winter of 1946.

While attending Kansas University from 1947 to 1951, he drew cartoons for the Jayhawker yearbook, the campus directory and a campus humor magazine.

"My stuff now, I hope, is nothing like I was doing when I was drawing for the Jayhawker," he said. "But when I did the Lawrence Lion, I look back at that and I really want to change it. But you don't do that. Your style changes. You just grow. . . . Some people think the stuff that I was doing for the Jayhawker is a lot better than what I'm doing now. But I can't go back to that. . . . You stumble along and pretty soon you develop your own voice with the technique you use."

Coker says he's enjoyed working over the years with MAD artists such as Don Martin and Jack Davis.

"It's been great fun. And you'd think it's just craziness all the time, but it isn't," he said. "It isn't a serious business by any means. But eventually you have to produce something. You can't just be zany."

AFTER GRADUATING in 1951 with a fine arts degree, Coker joined the Navy and was stationed in Great Lakes, Mich., where he created visual training guides for the Navy for three years.

His career took him back to Kansas City, Mo., where he worked as an artist for a Kansas City television station and later for Hallmark Cards.

He took off for New York City on April Fool's Day, 1957.

Since then, he's been working for MAD magazine and other publications and continues to work for Hallmark.

"The stuff I do, I try to please myself," he said. "I don't try to draw for a 9-year-old or a 15-year-old or anybody in particular. If I'm pleased, then that's that."

He's also done work for Rankin-Bass Productions, which creates animated holiday films. Coker made the original sketches for the characters in about 20 of the animated films, including "Frosty the Snowman" and "Peter Cottontail."

IN 1968 he moved from New York to Connecticut, then to California. He moved back to Lawrence 18 years ago after his mother suffered a stroke.

Coker says he receives instructions through the mail from MAD magazine, which sends him a package of a script and a layout of boxes where the cartoons will appear on the page.

He does thumbnail sketches first on his drawing board in pencil and then later inks it in.

"When I went to work for MAD it was a result of knowing Phil Hahn," he said. Hahn, who was a freshman at KU when Coker was a senior, first worked with Coker at Hallmark in Kansas City.

"Then he came to New York and was free-lancing and writing," Coker said. "He did an article for MAD that I illustrated. And that was the way I got in to see the MAD people."

Hahn left New York and went to Los Angeles where he went to work on the original ``Laugh-In'' television series in the 1960s.

"He has done many, many shows. He was the head writer and has an Emmy for his work on 'Laugh-In,'" Coker said.

Coker's advice to fine arts students who are interested in cartooning is to start early.

"IN CARTOONING, you should have been doing it in high school because it's just very competitive and there are an awful lot of very talented people," he said. "The only real substantial difference in cartoons now is the computer is used a lot for every kind of artwork. I wouldn't have the vaguest idea how to do a cartoon on a computer."

Coker laughs when asks how it has been to achieve a measure of fame in his field.

"Pretty soon I'll be famous for this room," he said, gesturing at the pile of material surrounding him.

"It will all collapse on me one day," he said. "I don't know how much weight I can put on here. There was a bed underneath here at one time."

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